Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Genre Reading group recap - salon discussion

With Holley in Alaska (Hi Holley!), I had the pleasure of moderating the Genre reading group's biannual Salon discussion. But don't fear, Holley will be back for the next meeting on the last Tuesday in June, the 26th, at 6:30pm when the topic is a particularly yummy one - foodie fiction!

Despite a pound cake in the oven and another episode of the Hatfield & McCoy miniseries debuting the same night, we had a lively discussion about the different books we've been reading. Books were literally swapped across the table so if you're looking for something new to read or recommendations, this reading group is the place to be! Here's a rundown of the selections:

Footprints by Brooke Astor
Published in 1980 when she was 78 years old, Brooke Astor recounts her childhood in China, her three marriages, and her career as an editor, with sketches of her friends, family, and the times.  

Our discussion of Astor's autobiography led to talk of the senior abuse scandal that plagued her final years. For more on the final years of her life, read Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach by Meryl Gordon

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten. Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse. 
August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a New York Times bestseller, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance. 

In a world where bullying among young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope. R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. Auggie is a hero to root for, a diamond in the rough who proves that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out. 

The Story of a Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl. When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. But before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: "Hide her." And so begins the 40-year epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia-lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love.

A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl
Jude Bertrand is not an excellent dancer. Nor does he wear the most fashionable coats. But when Marissa York's brother approaches him, desperate to preserve Marissa's tenuous reputation, Jude does prove heroic enough to offer to marry the girl. In fact, the union should more than make up for his lack of social graces - and his own scandalous past...Marissa knows that betrothal to the son of a duke - even one as raw and masculine as Jude - will save her from ruin, but that doesn't mean she's happy about it. Soon, though, she finds that Jude has a surprisingly gentle touch - and plans to use it to persuade Marissa that their wedding day cannot come soon enough...

Titanic Love Stories:: The True Stories of 13 Honeymoon Couples Who Sailed on the Titanic by Gill Paul

On April 10, 1912, the new RMS Titanic set sail on her fateful voyage from Southampton to New York. Among those on board were 13 newly-wed couples – some simply enjoying the trip of a lifetime, others crossing to America with dreams of starting a new life together. Titanic Love Stories tells the tales of these honeymooners. Featuring haunting portraits of all the sweethearts, these true stories of love, tragedy, heroism, and hope are more remarkable than any work of romantic fiction.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America by Bill Bryson
"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."
And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn't hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of smiling village where the movies from his youth were set. Instead he drove through a series of horrific burgs, which he renamed Smellville, Fartville, Coleslaw, Coma, and Doldrum. At best his search led him to Anywhere, USA, a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by obese and slow-witted hicks with a partiality for synthetic fibres. He discovered a continent that was doubly lost: lost to itself because he found it blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a foreigner in his own country.
An inspiring and hilarious account of one man's rediscovery of America and his search for the perfect small town.
An inspiring and hilarious account of one man's rediscovery of America and his search for the perfect small town. 

The Noticer by Andy Andrews
Orange Beach, Alabama, is a simple town filled with simple people.  But like all humans on the planet, the good folks of Orange Beach have their share of problems-marriages teetering on the brink of divorce, young adults giving up on life, business people on the verge of bankruptcy, as well as the many other obstacles that life seems to dish out to the masses.
Fortunately, when things look the darkest, a mysterious man named Jones has a miraculous way of showing up.  An elderly man with white hair, of indiscriminate age and race, wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt and leather flip flops carrying a battered old suitcase, Jones is a unique soul.  Communicating what he calls "a little perspective," he explains that he has been given a gift of noticing things that others miss.  "Your time on this earth is a gift to be used wisely," he says.  "Don't squander your words or your thoughts. Consider even the simplest action you take, for your lives matter beyond measure…and they matter forever."
Jones speaks to that part in everyone that is yearning to understand why things happen and what we can do about it.

Like The Traveler's GiftThe Noticer is a unique narrative blend of fiction, allegory, and inspiration in which gifted storyteller Andy Andrews helps us see how becoming a "noticer" just might change a person's life forever.

Pearl's Secret: a Black Man's Search for his White Family by Neil Henry
Pearl's Secret is a remarkable autobiography and family story that combines elements of history, investigative reporting, and personal narrative in a riveting, true-to-life mystery. In it, Neil Henry--a black professor of journalism and former award-winning correspondent for the Washington Post--sets out to piece together the murky details of his family's past. His search for the white branch of his family becomes a deeply personal odyssey, one in which Henry deploys all of his journalistic skills to uncover the paper trail that leads to blood relations who have lived for more than a century on the opposite side of the color line. At the same time Henry gives a powerful and vivid account of his black family's rise to success over the twentieth century. Throughout the course of this gripping story the author reflects on the part that racism and racial ignorance have played in his daily life--from his boyhood in largely white Seattle to his current role as a parent and educator in California.

The contemporary debate over the significance of Thomas Jefferson's longtime romantic relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, and recent DNA evidence that points to his role as the father of black descendants, have revealed the importance and volatility of the issue of dual-race legacies in American society. As Henry uncovers the dramatic history of his great-great-grandfather--a white English immigrant who fought as a Confederate officer in the Civil War, found success during Reconstruction as a Louisiana plantation owner, and enjoyed a long love affair with Henry's great-great-grandmother, a freed black slave--he grapples with an unsettling ambivalence about what he is trying to do. His straightforward, honest voice conveys both the pain and the exhilaration that his revelations bring him about himself, his family, and our society. In the book's stunning climax, the author finally meets his white kin, hears their own remarkable story of survival in America, and discovers a great deal about both the sting of racial prejudice as it is woven into the fabric of the nation, and his own proud identity as a teacher, father, and black American.

Pym by Mat Johnson
Recently canned professor of American literature Chris Jaynes is obsessed with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allan Poe’s strange and only novel. When he discovers the manuscript of a crude slave narrative that seems to confirm the reality of Poe’s fiction, he resolves to seek out Tsalal, the remote island of pure and utter blackness that Poe describes with horror. Jaynes imagines it to be the last untouched bastion of the African Diaspora and the key to his personal salvation.

He convenes an all-black crew of six to follow Pym’s trail to the South Pole in search of adventure, natural resources to exploit, and, for Jaynes at least, the mythical world of the novel. With little but the firsthand account from which Poe derived his seafaring tale, a bag of bones, and a stash of Little Debbie snack cakes, Jaynes embarks on an epic journey under the permafrost of Antarctica, beneath the surface of American history, and behind one of literature’s great mysteries. He finds that here, there be monsters.

We also had an etiquette layover from the last meeting - this one received a rave review:

How to be a Hepburn in a Hilton World by Jordan Christy
In a society driven by celebutante news and myspace profiles, women of class, style and charm are hard to come by. The Audrey and Katharines of the world continue to lose their luster as thongs, rehab and outrageous behavior burn up the daily headlines. But, despite appearances, guys still want a girl they can take home to their mom, employers still like to see a tailored suit and peers still respect classy conduct. So is it possible to maintain old fashioned virtues in a modern world without looking like a starchy Amish grandma? Christy shows women how in this guide to glamorous style, professional success and true love...the classy way. 

Full of fun assignments, notable names and real-life examples, Christy offers a new look at seemingly "old fashioned" advice. She covers diet, speech, work ethic, friends, relationships, manners, makeup, and fashionable yet modest clothing, showing modern ladies how they can be beautiful, intelligent and fun while retaining values and morals.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In Which The Bookies Discuss The Greater Journey

Bookies Meeting Summary
May 2012
The Greater Journey by David McCullough

The Bookies meeting was a rousing one today! As usual we had a fascinating discussion. The general consensus was that The Greater Journey was one of the greater books we have read - populated with creative, curious and interesting people!
 Some of the titles that came up during our discussion include the following:
John Adams by David McCullough which Marjorie H. said was a terrific biography of the former president.
Sold Down the River by Barbara Hambly – a title mentioned by Jane LaRose.  It’s the fourth in a series about a free man of color in 19th century New Orleans. The review on Amazon states the books is a Penetrating the murkiest corners of glittering New Orleans society, Benjamin January brought murderers to justice in A Free Man of Color, Fever Season, and Graveyard Dust. Now, in Barbara Hambly's haunting new novel, he risks his life in a violent plantation world darker than anything in the city....

When slave owner Simon Fourchet asks Benjamin January to investigate sabotage, arson, and murder on his plantation, January is reluctant to do any favors for the savage man who owned him until he was seven. But he knows too well that plantation justice means that if the true culprit is not found, every slave on Mon Triomphe will suffer. 

Abandoning his Parisian French for the African patois of a field hand, cutting cane until his bones ache and his musician's hands bleed, Benjamin must use all his intelligence and cunning to find the killer ... or find himself sold down the river.
The Grandissimes by George Washington Cable – I mentioned this at the meeting because it also has a physician as a main character and explores the cultural life of Creoles, free men of color, and Mulattoes in New Orleans in the 19th century. At the center is a dark slave narrative. It’s a wonderful book that the Bookies read early in our existence. So if you are new to the Bookies or don’t remember this book, please pick up a copy, I think you’ll like it!
*Note, I checked the catalog, and our copy of The Grandissimes is Lost & Paid. The only other copies in the system are at Birmingham Public Library and are reference copies. I have a paperback copy on order, and hope to be able to get a copy for our library! It’s a difficult title to acquire!*
Death In The City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi Occupied Paris by David King – I brought up this title because I loved the description of Paris in the 1930s. I learned a lot about the society, history and culture. The book IS a little grizzly, so if you don’t like that kind of book, this might not be for you, but it was an interesting book about Nazi occupied Paris. I would think Bookies who a)read and liked In The Garden of Beasts AND b) don’t mind the serial killer aspect, would really like this book.
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – I also mentioned this at the meeting because of the amount of Edwardian history in the book. We talked about how much of history of taught about wars, but we sometimes miss the history of Europe during peace-time. The brief review from states “When children’s book author Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of a museum, she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends. But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. The Wellwoods’ personal struggles and hidden desires unravel against a breathtaking backdrop of the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, as the Edwardian period dissolves into World War I and Europe’s golden era comes to an end.”
If you are interested in art and art history you might really enjoy this one because some of the main characters are artists and potters. I learned A LOT about the Fabians and other counter-culture groups at the time. Very enjoyable read!
Last, but not least, I also brought up Niall Ferguson’s new book Civilization:The West and the Rest which is just that! The book traces the rise and fall of civilizations from the vantage point of major themes in history. The review from amazon states “ In Civilization: The West and the Rest, bestselling author Niall Ferguson argues that, beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six powerful new concepts that the Rest lacked: competition, science, the rule of law, consumerism, modern medicine, and the work ethic. These were the "killer applications" that allowed the West to leap ahead of the Rest, opening global trade routes, exploiting newly discovered scientific laws, evolving a system of representative government, more than doubling life expectancy, unleashing the Industrial Revolution, and embracing a dynamic work ethic. Civilization shows just how fewer than a dozen Western empires came to control more than half of humanity and four fifths of the world economy.
Yet now, Ferguson argues, the days of Western predominance are numbered-not because of clashes with rival civilizations, but simply because the Rest have now downloaded the six killer apps we once monopolized-while the West has literally lost faith in itself.
Civilization does more than tell the gripping story of the West's slow rise and sudden demise; it also explains world history with verve, clarity, and wit. Controversial but cogent and compelling, Civilization is Ferguson at his very best.”
The audio is particularly good because the first person narratives are voices by actors with the appropriate accent, so Islamic scholars have a Middle Eastern accent, while Frederic of Prussia sounds, well, decidedly Prussian! The “app” aspect is a little annoying, and, in my opinion, detracts from the power of history. But Niall Ferguson didn’t ask me!
Some very real characters that we enjoyed include:
·        Elihu Washburne, the American diplomat in Paris who wrote with alarm about the burning of Paris in 1881. Interestingly, Birmingham Public Library has “Recollections of A Minister to France, 1869-1887”. It’s in the reference collection, but might be cool to see!
·        Josephine Baker and James Baldwin – two African Americans who were able to travel to Paris and enjoy the freedoms (both personal and creative) that they could not enjoy in the United States
·        Elizabeth Blackwell who was the first female doctor in the United States at a time when women were not trained as physicians at all, she was able to travel to Paris to further the cause of women’s education and health. We talked a lot about medicine and education. Many Americans traveled to Paris to learn about topics that were not taught in the States, or were not taught to women! Jane L. mentioned that many free men of color were sent to Paris to learn to read and become further educated because it was not possible in America. The same was true for women of color in Louisiana who were often sent to French convent schools to be educated.
·        Last, Jane mentioned the art of Paris and compared it to the Barnes collection in Philadelphia. If you are interested in taking a look at this collection, look at their website. The collection is private and was established in 1922. Jane L. said she remembers seeing the collection arranged regardless of nationality or time period, much the way the art was depicted in The Greater Journey.